Tim Epling isn’t saying that Blake Roberts could not have handled a pressure situation last season. But he proved capable at precisely the right moment.
Roberts delivered the most clutch base hit in West Virginia Miners history, driving in two runs with two out in the eighth inning to lead a 2-1 win over Slippery Rock for the Prospect League East Division championship Monday at Linda K. Epling Stadium.
The Miners trailed 1-0 since the second inning before finally breaking through in their last at-bat. And they did so against Chase Byerly, the league’s top closer who had come through in all 16 of his save opportunities before Monday.
To win the league championship, West Virginia will have to endure its longest trip of the season Wednesday. Quincy defeated Terre Haute 15-5 Monday for the West Division title.
“When you’re playing for a championship, it makes (traveling) easier,” Epling said. “I’m glad we have an opportunity to play for a championship. I don’t care if we have to drive 24 hours.”
Actually, it’s more like 11 1/2. And they have Roberts to thank for that one final trip.
With one out in the eighth, Paul Rambaud was walked by Sliders starter Jeff Barto. Sam Frost then hit a ground ball up the middle that second baseman David Leon made an amazing diving stop of to force Rambaud.
Joe Koch then drew a four-pitch walk to chase Barto. Slippery Rock manager Andy Charlot had things going the way he drew them up when he brought in Byerly, a sidearming right-hander who leads the league in saves.
But Byerly uncharacteristically walked Clay Prestridge to load the bases with two out.
That brought up Roberts, the Miners’ leading hitter. The third baseman from Central Arkansas fell behind 0-2 against Byerly.
Epling was never worried, and Roberts showed why. He singled between third base and shortstop to bring in Frost with the tying run. Left fielder Jon Capasso bobbled the ball and Koch, who was injured in the second inning, slid in with the go-ahead run.
It was Byerly’s first and only blown save.
“There were three guys on base, that’s the first thing,” Roberts said, thankful that the Miners were finally threatening. “That hit doesn’t make a difference if those guys are not on base.”
Epling said a change in his plate approach has helped Roberts all summer.
“He’s such a changed player from this year to last year,” Epling said. “I talked to him about the change he made. I’d like to know as a coach. We went over some hitting philosophies and the mindset that he takes to the plate, and I kind of learned a lot from him.”
The win got West Virginia starter Jared Messer off the hook for what would have been a disappointing loss. Instead, Messer improved to 6-2 after allowing five hits and an earned run in 8 2-3 innings. He struck out eight and walked one.
Epling sent Messer back out to try to finish the game, but he was lifted after giving up a two-out single to Radley Haddad. Joe Church got Leon to ground out to end the game and picked up his third save.
“Everything really felt good today,” Messer said. “I was mixing up speeds and throwing strikes.”
Messer fell behind 1-0 in the second, with Koch getting shaken up in the process.
Haddad lifted a long fly ball to left. Koch chased the ball and actually caught it, but ran directly into the unpadded concrete wall and jarred the ball loose.
Haddad stopped at third for a triple and scored on Leon’s groundout.
Koch was attended to and stayed in the game, but had a huge bump to the right of his right eye.
Barto (2-4) was the undeserving loser. He pitched 7 2-3 innings and allowed three hits while striking out five and walking three.
The Miners were scheduled to leave Beckley at 8:30 a.m. today. Quincy, Ill., is 710 miles away.
“We’ve got a couple more (long trips) left in us,” Roberts said. “These guys are used to it. It’s about Day 200 for these guys who play all spring and all summer. It’s nothing we’re not used to, and guys will grind it out and find a way to play.”
— E-mail: gfauber@
West Virginia Miners 2,
Slippery Rock Sliders 1
SRS: 010 000 000 — 1 5 0
WVM: 000 000 02x — 2 4 1
SRS: Jeff Barto, Chase Byerly (8) and Radley Haddad, WVM: Jared Messer, Joe Church (9) and Clay Prestridge. WP — Messer. LP — Barto. Hitting — SRS: Trent Wooldridge 1-4, Jon Capasso 2-3 (2b), Haddad 2-4 (3b, run), David Leon (rbi), WVM: Joe Koch (run), Blake Roberts 2-3 (2 rbi), John Spirk 1-3, Paul Rambaud 1-2, Sam Frost (run).